Facebook may be great at creating online communities. But the social media giant is currently not being a good neighbor in the real world, according to a strongly worded letter and demand for change by the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California and Public Advocates of San Francisco.
Both nonprofit law agencies are claiming that Facebook’s proposed expansion of two new buildings including 126,000 square feet of office space and a 200-room hotel could displace thousands of low-income people living near the campus. The nearly 60-acre project site is located between Chilco Street and Building 20, formerly referred to as Facebook’s West Campus. The draft environmental impact review was released in May. The Menlo Park City Council is expected to revisit Facebook’s environmental impact proposal in mid-December.
"It's not that we're against Facebook or against job growth," Public Advocates attorney Sam Tepperman-Gelfant told NBC Bay Area on Thursday. "But we want to go in with our eyes open and collectively come up with an answer on how to have have a thriving economy while also dealing with affordable housing and not squeezing anyone out."
In an open blog and Facebook post this week, the ACLU and Public Advocates asked that Facebook give an “honest accounting of housing and employment impacts,” alleging that the company is understating the number of jobs the new project will create. Facebook has said the project will bring 6,500 new employees to the city. But the lawyers are citing a university study showing that more like 25,000 jobs will be created from the expansion.
Next, the ACLU and Public Advocates are asking Facebook to “commit to take strong action to mitigate these impacts.” In particular, the agencies stated: “We call on Facebook to pay for the construction of new homes affordable to low income households and provide other assistance…Wealthy multinational corporations like Facebook must … step up.”
Facebook did not immediately respond for comment on Thursday regarding these claims.
But on July 15, Facebook touted its new project and what the company sees as a generous community benefits package - a requirement to contribute $6.3 million to below-market-rate housing. And many who attended a council meeting on Tuesday where a portion of the company's development project was approved, praised Facebook for all that it's already done for the community.
Last week, the company sent out a prepared statement from John Tenanes, the vice president of Facebook’s Global Facilities and Real Estate, about the project. “Facebook's commitment to help build a stronger community is not only reflected in the proposed development agreement terms, but it's also underscored in how we work with our neighbors,” Tenanes stated. “It’s our responsibility to provide public benefits that are responsive to community priorities and assist with finding solutions to address regional challenges related to housing and transportation. We want to continue to build social value and grow responsibly in the City of Menlo Park.”
Plus, as part of the project, Facebook promised to spend more than $7.8 million on affordable housing and more than $3 million to address traffic congestion. A city report said the project’s buildings could have a minimum value for tax purposes of $695 million and would generate revenue for Menlo Park of about $2.1 million a year for 10 years after they are occupied, and $1.8 million a year each year after that.
On top of that, Facebook will subsidize rents for 22 units in the Belle Haven neighborhood for five years in an effort to make housing more affordable to teachers, firefighters and other service workers. The company also plans to build at least 1,500 housing units on property it bought from Prologis in 2015, 15 percent of which will be offered at below-market rates.
Facebook has also donated to Menlo Park in the past, paying the salary of a police officer – the first private company known to do that in the country.
The ACLU and Public Advocates noted that what Facebook has already promised Menlo Park is a “very small nod in the right direction.”
In an interview, Tepperman-Gelfant said he didn't have a specific price tag or a set number of affordable apartment units that Facebook should contribute. But he added that he knows the number should simply be "more." He also said in the last week, his firm and Facebook have been communicating, though he didn't offer specifics.
Tepperman-Gelfant is the author of the piece, “Facebook’s Expansion Plans Could Displace Thousands in Menlo Park.” And specifically, he said the draft environmental impact study needs to be reviewed more closely and that city leaders must do their best to extract what's best for the community, especially those most in need.
Tepperman-Gelfant and the ACLU’s Novella Coleman and Linda Lye sent Menlo Park’s senior planner, Kyle Perata, a letter on July 11, explaining that in their view, “thousands of new highly-paid Facebook employees and thousands more low-wage service sector workers will be drawn to the area and will need to find homes. The influx of highly-paid employees will drive up rents and incentivize landlords to evict low-income tenants, while low-wage workers will be forced into lengthy commutes because the only affordable homes are many miles from their jobs." They said the low-income communities of East Palo Alto, Belle Haven in Menlo Park, San Francisco, San Jose and Oakland will also feel the effect of this gentrification.
And they called on the city of Menlo Park and other local governments to help their communities in their “critical role” to zone and approve more affordable housing for low-income tenants.
Perata did not immediately respond to NBC Bay Area for comment on Thursday. But Menlo Park Mayor Pro Tem Kirsten Keith, a criminal defense lawyer, said promises to review the environmental impact reports seriously and do what's right for the residents of not only the city where she's lived for 20 years, but for the surrounding areas. She said she is a huge housing rights advocate and will do right by her community, adamantly denying that she would rubber stamp anything that Facebook sends her way. At the same time, she lauded Facebook and said she wished that more tech companies would follow Facebook's lede in community aid.